How America Can Lead in Asia

U.S. and China flags on display. Flickr/Creative Commons/U.S. Department of Agriculture

China is in no position to seek regional dominance.

America in a Multipolar World: New Challenges Require New Approaches

As the Trump administration assumes leadership of American foreign policy, questions prevail about how it perceives the United States’ role in the world and how it will exercise that role.  The appearance of a potentially unconventional U.S. president amidst a world in flux highlights the enormous uncertainties and the potential risks to U.S. stability and prosperity that are now confronting us.

The United States is today facing a fundamentally different world from the one it has known for many decades. In fact, the scope and magnitude of global change represents the greatest challenge since America’s emergence as a world power a century ago. Economic, technological, political and military power has dispersed globally in ways that make it impossible for the United States to pursue its interests unilaterally at acceptable costs and untenable for it to sustain indefinitely its economic and military primacy throughout the world.

Domestically, the United States confronts a range of problems and trends that further challenge its ability to adjust to this changing global environment. A highly polarized political and social environment is inhibiting efforts to rejuvenate vital foundations of the economy, and to deal with mounting national debt, growing income inequality, eroding infrastructure and spiraling entitlement costs. If allowed to continue, such U.S. political and economic difficulties will constrain Washington’s ability to compete in a multipolar world, diminish confidence in U.S. staying power among friends and allies and probably intensify downward pressure on U.S. defense spending.

Notwithstanding these challenges, the United States remains the world’s largest economy and boasts a relatively young and optimistic population, the best universities, and an outstanding capacity for scientific innovation. Even faced with constraining economic and political forces, it still retains the world’s strongest military and an extensive system of global alliances. Moreover, the United States continues to exert enormous influence through its soft power.

Given this decidedly mixed picture of unprecedented challenges despite lasting strengths, Washington cannot continue business as usual. While leveraging its many strengths more effectively, it must recognize and adjust to the emerging limits on U.S. capabilities and influence.  This will require a serious review of U.S. strategic goals and the means of pursuing them, to include:

— Defining America’s primary and secondary interests more clearly.

— Matching objectives more closely with both capabilities and resources.

— Adopting a more judicious approach to the deployment and use of force, with a much keener appreciation of which issues are susceptible to military solutions and which are not.

— Nurturing and funding the full range of American foreign policy tools in addition to those in the military realm.

— Recognizing the need to work through coalitions and stable balances of power rather than relying on continued primacy.

East Asia Will Remain Critical

Nowhere are these needs more clearly evident than in East Asia. As almost certainly the foremost center of global economic growth and great power rivalry in the 21st century, it presents by far the greatest long-term challenge but also the greatest opportunity for the United States. It will almost certainly remain the primary source of U.S. economic growth for decades to come. It contains some of America’s closest allies, and presents enormous opportunities for expanding collaboration with the major powers of the region on a growing array of regional and global challenges. Indeed, in contrast to the protracted problems afflicting the Middle East and Europe, East Asia could constitute an anchor of global stability and prosperity if key relationships and friction points are managed properly.

Unfortunately, many of these friction points have seen increasing tensions in recent years.

— North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are on a path that could foment a dangerous crisis.

— Sino-Japanese ties have deteriorated, and the bonds between key U.S. allies Tokyo and Seoul are strained.

— New uncertainties have emerged in relations between Taiwan and mainland China.

— The South China Sea has become a cauldron of sovereignty disputes as China’s expansion into maritime territories also claimed by other countries has created deep anxieties across the region.

— Political winds from the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand are testing ASEAN unity and raising questions about their commitment to cooperation with the United States.

— Russia has drawn closer to China and is determined to expand its role in the region.

Compounding these problems is the fact that, despite growing areas of cooperation, Washington’s relations with a rising China are in danger of being overshadowed by deepening levels of distrust and strategic rivalry.  Most notably, the changing power configuration in East Asia resulting from China’s growing military capabilities and economic and diplomatic influence is increasing the potential for confrontations between Beijing and Washington over contentious regional issues. It is also fueling an emerging regional arms race that taxes U.S. resources.

This negative dynamic is reinforcing doubts among our allies and other countries about the durability of the U.S. commitment to remain fully engaged in Asian affairs. Many Asian nations fear the United States no longer has the domestic discipline, political and social cohesion, resources and attention span to sustain its longstanding role as a force for stability and prosperity in the region. As a result, they view U.S. skill in managing our relationship with China as the litmus test of our reliability as a long-term partner.

Yet Asians do not want to be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing. China’s rapid economic rise has been the engine of growth in East Asia. When China behaves responsibly, its neighbors want to strengthen economic cooperation with it. When Beijing seeks to use its new military and economic muscles in a more coercive fashion, its neighbors look to the United States for support. But at the same time they deeply fear the prospect of any U.S.-China military conflict.

Thus, the key challenge for the United States in East Asia is to forge a path that reassures in both directions: to use our military presence and political influence to counter destabilizing Chinese behavior, while ensuring our allies and partners that we seek to avoid conflict and are expanding cooperation with China in areas where our interests overlap.

For this approach to succeed, the United States must set as the goal of its policy the establishment of a stable balance of power with a more influential and powerful China, rather than pursuing a vain quest to preserve our traditional absolute regional military superiority. If the United States can capture this dynamic in our policy approach to the region, the East Asian miracle will continue to have a solid footing.

The Essential Relationship

Such an approach must be rooted in the reality of a complex, interdependent and essential Sino-U.S. relationship. Beijing is neither an enemy nor an ally. It is both a strong competitor and an essential collaborator in many areas.

The stakes involved in getting America’s China policy right are extremely high. China has a larger population, longer history, more foreign currency holdings and more trade than the United States or any other country. Its economy, which is in the process of surpassing America’s in overall size, is integrated into a global network that demands ever-deeper levels of multilateral coordination to function smoothly.

American consumers depend on China for an enormous range of manufactured products. China in turn is a major market for key U.S. products, from machinery to agriculture and services. It holds large amounts of American debt and has an enduring interest in a strong and vibrant U.S. economy. At the same time, China’s huge market size and industrial growth pose competitive challenges for the U.S. industrial and service sectors.

China also sends more students abroad than any other country—with an unprecedented three hundred thousand plus students in the United States alone—many of them absorbing ideas for management and technology as they gain a deeper understanding of how open market economies function.

In Asia and parts of the world beyond, China is rapidly becoming the principal trader and lender—including for key U.S. allies—and could eventually become the primary investor. A foretaste is provided by Beijing’s ambitious “one belt, one road” plan to advance the economic integration of Eurasia, with China in a central role. 

In the diplomatic realm, China is gaining significant influence in world affairs. Beijing has taken an increasingly active part in existing international organizations but has also begun to develop new regional structures in which it is playing a central role, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Boao Forum and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

China is also expanding its multilateral engagement across the globe, often presenting itself as a spokesperson for the developing world. Beijing formally adheres to most international norms but differs strongly with the United States on basic issues like the protection of human rights and individual freedoms. And it favors state control of various areas of societal behavior such as the internet.

An Inevitable Security Challenge

In the security realm, for the first time in modern history, China is developing military capabilities that significantly improve its ability to defend its interests within at least the “first island chain” that extends from Japan through Taiwan and the Philippines to continental Southeast Asia. This represents a challenge to traditional U.S. air and sea superiority in the western Pacific, a status that the United States has enjoyed since the end of World War II. In particular, China’s growing military capabilities directly impact U.S. defense alliances with Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Philippines, and U.S. security commitments with respect to Taiwan.

While China’s growing military capabilities and ambitions certainly create challenges for the United States, they do not necessarily reflect aggressive or expansionist intentions and instead derive largely from Beijing’s difficult security environment and historical experience. China has land borders with fourteen countries, some small and inconsequential but others, like Russia and India, wielding significant power and resources. Four of these neighbors have nuclear weapons, and the United States has a nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea. China's “near abroad” also includes major countries such as Indonesia and Iran.

While China can develop formidable naval capabilities along its coastal areas, it lacks unfettered access to the open seas, whether the Pacific, Indian, or Arctic Oceans. It does not control the island chains on its eastern flanks, and narrow straits restrict its naval access to the Indian Ocean.  In this sense, anti-access and area denial, a concept often applied to China’s military strategy along its maritime periphery, can also work against it.

Modern history has not been kind to China. It lost vast swathes of its territory because of its earlier weakness, and it lagged behind Japan in modernization. In the 19th and 20th centuries, multiple wars were fought inside China or on its borders. In addition, vast sweeps of China's western regions are occupied by ethnic minorities, such as the Tibetans and the Uighurs in Xinjiang, living in their historic homelands. These regions are vulnerable to separatist sentiments, which reinforces the importance China attaches to preserving national unity and territorial integrity.

Understandably, the Chinese believe that over the last two hundred years they have been bullied and victimized by stronger powers. They are determined not to let this happen again, and genuinely believe their own rhetoric that their goal is not to dominate but to avoid being dominated. Their neighbors, not surprisingly, are skeptical of this claim. Moreover, the Chinese may be poor judges of their own future behavior since their military modernization gives them growing capabilities to bully weaker countries around their periphery.

Despite these insecurities and historical grievances, postulating that China’s goal is to dominate East Asia ignores geographic, historical and domestic political factors. History has demonstrated that some regions of the world are not conducive to sustained domination by major powers. No major power has been able to dominate Europe for the last two hundred years, despite several attempts. East Asia is another such region. Japan tried to dominate it and suffered a catastrophic defeat. While the United States has enjoyed maritime primacy in Asia for seventy years, it has certainly not dominated East Asia as a whole.

Moreover, domestically, China—like the United States—faces huge challenges, including slowing economic growth, an aging population, a shrinking workforce, and badly skewed income distribution. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is shaking up the party, the government and the military. The leadership’s economic reforms threaten the giant state owned enterprises that constitute a powerful interest group in China. And the military reforms Xi is undertaking pose significant implications for promotions and career patterns.

With such an external mindset and these internal challenges, China’s interests are no better served than ours by a Cold War-style strategic competition with the United States – especially when the two sides are economically interdependent and facing joint responsibility for the management of climate change and other transnational global threats. Instead, Beijing’s priorities require stability, lessened security competition and continued growth. China is in no position to seek regional (much less global) dominance.

The Best Response: Transition to a Stable and Mutually Beneficial Balance in Asia

Given the strategic circumstances outlined above, fundamental U.S. security interests are best served by maintaining the credibility of our defense arrangements in East Asia while focusing on economic development over military rivalry. At the same time, it is necessary to recognize and take into account China’s own vital security interests and concerns, which include keeping Taiwan within a one China framework and defending its homeland against external threats.

The security imperatives of China and the United States are potentially, but not inherently, incompatible. They become incompatible only if neither side is willing to accommodate, in some fashion, to the other’s fundamental interests.

The solution is not for the United States to double down militarily, spending vast amounts of money in a futile attempt to remain militarily predominant across all of maritime East Asia.  Such an approach would be virtually certain to result in an intensifying arms race and political rivalry with Beijing that would undermine the basis for vital Sino-U.S. cooperation in other areas. At worst, it could generate a new Cold War that benefits no one. 

Washington also needs to adapt its security posture in the region to one that the U.S. economy can sustain, and the U.S. polity can endorse, especially given America’s myriad domestic priorities.

We judge that the United States can best meet all these requirements and best protect its interests—and those of its allies and partners in the region—by working with China and other countries to transition toward a stable balance of power in East Asia, and a more integrated and dynamic regional economic network that benefits all.

Maintaining a stable security environment requires retaining a robust U.S. alliance network, supplemented by an expanding set of mutually verifiable understandings with Beijing, U.S. allies and other Asian powers.

These understandings would be aimed at stabilizing the military balance with China at a level both sides can live with. Each side would possess capabilities sufficient to deter the other from using force to resolve serious differences, but would lack the clear superiority that could, in the eyes of the other, foster aggressive intentions or stimulate an arms race.

Such understandings must also aim at defusing and demilitarizing the most contentious issues in the region, from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs—which threaten to restrict U.S. freedom of action in defending itself and its allies—to Taiwan and the maritime disputes across the Asian littoral. Managing or resolving these issues can be achieved most optimally in the context of a regional balance.

Achieving a more integrated and dynamic economic region would require the United States, China and other Asian economies to strengthen their domestic economic growth and to rationalize their trade relationships. Most importantly, successful long-term economic integration will depend on Beijing and Washington agreeing to join a common trade architecture, creating an eventual region-wide free-trade agreement. This will require more active and focused U.S. economic diplomacy that maximizes Chinese incentives to work with Washington to strengthen the global economic structure.

For Washington, this process will require a consistency of purpose that goes beyond tactical short-term cooperation with Beijing on bilateral issues, while hedging against downside scenarios by reconfiguring U.S. military capabilities and selectively strengthening our alliances in the region. It will also require strengthening diplomatic efforts and coordinating them more closely with our military efforts. Economically, it will require—but will also facilitate, by making our East Asia strategy more cost-effective—the rejuvenation of the vital foundations of American growth, such as improving national infrastructure, managing the nation’s mounting national debt, reducing income inequality and limiting spiraling entitlements.

For Beijing, which is confronting its own domestic priorities, this process will similarly require better policy coordination and consistency. But it should also promote stable economic and social development inside China. Beijing’s many problems and needs strongly suggest that it would be receptive to reaching the kind of stable and mutually beneficial balance outlined above.

Working From Strength, Not Weakness

If mishandled, the above approach could be perceived as a sign of weakening U.S. resolve to preserve a military environment in East Asia sufficient to reassure our allies and friends. This risk is well worth taking, however, and can be minimized or eliminated altogether through strong U.S. initiatives that more effectively leverage America’s many strengths and a clear recognition by all of the even greater dangers posed by efforts to dominate East Asia or to “muddle through” on a piecemeal basis.

This pursuit of a stable U.S.-China balance and greater economic integration in East Asia is an approach better suited to what our economy can sustain over the long run and strikes a better balance between our external security interests, our international responsibilities and our domestic requirements. It rests on the effective use of America’s substantial military and economic power, both globally and regionally, and anticipates that the United States will remain a powerful and influential nation in the world for decades to come. And it assumes that Washington, with the support of its allies and friends, can retain a leadership role in Asia in a manner that is reassuring to all regional powers, including China.

Joseph W. Prueher is a former career U.S. Naval officer, having served as Commander of the Pacific Command, and after retiring from the Navy, as U.S. Ambassador to China for Presidents Clinton and Bush (1999-2001).  He has also worked in academia and serves on the boards of U.S. corporations and nonprofit organizations.

J. Stapleton Roy is a former senior career U.S. diplomat specializing in Asian affairs.  He served as U.S. ambassador in Singapore (1984–86), the People's Republic of China (1991–95), and Indonesia (1996–99).  He was also director of the Kissinger Institute for Chinese-U.S. Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Paul Heer is a former career U.S. intelligence official who served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015.  During 2015-6, he was a Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

David M. Lampton is Professor and Director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is former President of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

Michael D. Swaine is a career policy analyst specializing in Asian security issues, especially those involving the U.S.-China relationship.  He was a Senior Political Scientist at The RAND Corporation from 1989-2001 and is currently a Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Ezra Vogel is Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus, Harvard University, a former director of the Asia Center and Fairbank Center, Harvard University, and served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 1993 to 1995. 

Image: U.S. and China flags on display. Flickr/Creative Commons/U.S. Department of Agriculture